Citizens Seek Sunshine, School Board Closes Drapes
A veil of secrecy draped across the Ascension Parish School Board’s approval of four new industrial tax exemptions this week, with no amounts and no job projections given in public documents for the projects code named “Magnolia”, “Zinnia”, “Bagel” and “Sunflower”.
“For them to reveal to the general public new projects and technologies would jeopardize millions of dollars in investment,” insisted the board's Budget Committee chairman Troy Gautreau, Sr.
They even kept the sound system turned down, so the packed house had to strain to hear speakers objecting to the exemptions.
“I’m giving someone a blank check. I don’t even know who the check’s written to – it’s written to ‘cash’,” said attorney Brian Blackwell, as he urged the school board to make more information public, prior to voting on property tax relief for the projects – exemptions that could last up to eight years.
“You-all don’t have the information to be able to make that kind of decision. And the public doesn’t have that information to be able to know whether to oppose or support any particular exemption,” Blackwell added.
“I was shocked to learn just how many hundreds of millions of dollars of taxes are not collected,” local small business owner Calvin Fair said of the ITEP program, which was revised last year to require local approvals, instead of just state okays. “And for each property tax dollar our school board does not collect, somebody else gets to pay extra: homeowners and small business owners.”
Ava Smith, the parent of an East Ascension High School student, told the board they and industry were failing in their duties to the schools.
“We as parents and taxpayers ourselves should not have to be seeking out the identities of these businesses and what they’re doing with the tax exemption,” she said, shaking a finger at the school board members. “And if businesses were doing right,” she said, turning to look at industry representatives in the audience, “we as parents would not have to be going door-to-door selling chocolate-covered almonds to fund our schools.”
Together Ascension, the local arm of Together Louisiana – a coalition of church and community groups – organized the resistance. Industry representatives were on hand to fight back.
Greg Bowser LA Chem Assoc.
“They (Together Louisiana) will tell you if you deny the tax exemption, industry is going to make the investment anyway. I can assure you that’s probably not going to happen.,” state Greg Bowser with the Louisiana Chemical Association. “And if the investment is not made, then there is no tax revenue.”
Sheila Hidalgo, who is married to a public school teacher in the parish, warned school board members they would make enemies if they didn't approve the exemptions.
“Everyone around me has a job in the manufacturing industry. We voted y’all in,” Hidalgo said. You live in a conservative parish. So I would like y’all to take that into account as y’all vote.”
Last week, members of Together Ascension filed suit against the Ascension Parish Council’s prior okay of the exemptions, citing the lack of disclosure, and George Armstrong, one of the lead plaintiffs in the case, advised the school board they would face a similar suit if they voted without revealing the companies involved.
But Melody Woodworth with the Louisiana Economic Development, assured school board members a vote as-is would be acting within accepted business practices.
“The code names that are used? It is a standard practice in economic development throughout the country,” she stated.
Broderick Bagert, director of Together Louisiana, said that would violate the state's “sunshine laws”.
“We believe the amount of school property tax entailed in every industrial tax exemption should be formally established and publicly declared in public notice any time an exemption will be voted on, and the companies requesting exemptions should be identified.” Bagert said. “We believe that’s a matter of law. And that LED’s limited ability to maintain confidentiality – it says clearly in statute – 'ends the day a public body considers one of these exemptions in a public meeting'.”
But the committee chair wasn't having any part of that.
“Together Ascension would have you believe companies are not being forthright and ethical, and they’re colluding with politicians. How can you trust anything they say?” Gautreau asked rhetorically, as he called for the vote.
Approval was unanimous, and once secured, a bit more information on the projects – though not the names of the companies – was revealed.
Over eight years, Ascension Parish will forego $462-million in taxes, while the four projects create just 32 jobs among them.